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Margin Notes

The fight goes on for free tuition

And why I think that’s not such a good idea.


There were smiles and celebration among student groups in Quebec this past week – and with good reason – as the newly elected Parti Québécois government annulled the tuition fee hikes of $254 a year for the next seven years imposed by the outgoing Liberals before the election. Not only that, but Pauline Marois’ government also decided to keep in place the $39 million boost to Quebec’s student assistance plan that was meant to soften the effects of the increased tuition fees for low-income families.

As they say in Quebec, avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre – it’s like having your cake and eating it too. Or, as described by Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ, the group representing university students): “It’s a total victory!”

The students have a right to be proud of what they’ve accomplished. Throughout the months of their protests, they were generally disciplined, articulate, focussed and persuasive, attracting attention not just in Quebec, but throughout Canada and internationally. Their movement also prompted much discussion about the government’s role in education, how university education should be funded, and more.

FEUQ and its counterpart representing college students, FECQ, seem satisfied for now. The next decision for them will be whether to support the indexing of tuition to inflation, which the PQ proposes. But the more radical of the student groups, la CLASSE, is having nothing of it. They have always called for the complete elimination of tuition fees and plan to continue that fight (see here, plus this op-ed from the CLASSE leaders here).

The CLASSE position is based on the flawed premise that free postsecondary education will boost access to university. Various studies by University of Ottawa professor Ross Finnie and others have shown that tuition is not the major barrier. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates adds that the student group’s policies would actually benefit richer families at the expense of the poor.

The most effective way to increase access to higher education, according to Western University business professor Mike Moffat, looking at OECD data, would be to give direct tuition grants to the three groups that are the least likely to attend university: children from lower-income households, rural and aboriginal Canadians and those who did not have a parent attend university. But that doesn’t have quite the same ring as “free education for all!”

Personally, I am philosophically against the notion that postsecondary education should be completely free to the user. When it comes to healthcare, another “free service,” if you’re lucky enough to have a job with workplace benefits (that pay for prescriptions and dental care, for example), there is usually a 20-percent deductible, meaning you pay 20 percent of the cost. That strikes me as fair: it’s a signal that this benefit has value and that you have a responsibility to contribute at least some amount for this benefit. This principal is similar, in effect, to the $7-a-day that Quebeckers pay for daycare (perhaps not quite 20 percent of the true cost for daycare, but close enough). According to reports, the tuition that Quebec students currently pay represents about 16 percent of the true cost.

CLASSE argues that other countries have free tuition, but this free tuition apparently isn’t always what it seems. It’s also illogical as an argument. Using the same reasoning, you could argue that we should double tuition in Canada because that would bring us in line with what Americans pay on average at their public universities.

And while it’s true that everyone in society benefits when the country has university-educated citizens, who get good jobs and pay higher taxes, no one can dispute that the individual with a university education benefits personally, too.

Finally, some students also argue that tuition should be free because education is a right. Unfortunately, there is no mention of free university tuition in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But, on the other hand, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Article 13, section 2(c), states: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education” (my emphasis). Canada, however, has not signed the covenant – although it did accede to the document, which can be interpreted as having the same legal effect as ratification.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. R. Craigen / September 26, 2012 at 15:01

    Hi Leo. While I am more or less in accord with your stated position I find your analysis pretty thin and where it has substance that misses the point. Several points, actually. Obviously they can’t all be addressed here, but I’ll hit a couple of things, for your consideration.

    “Everyone in society benefits when the country has university-educated citizens…” is a standard bait-and-switch argument that advocates of free tuition like to raise. Sure, ok, but what has this to do with the government writing off the costs?

    Across the country I have seen faculty, particularly in the sciences, speaking increasingly about the need for improved entrance standards. The general feeling, which can be correlated with supporting empirical data, is that we are admitting a good number of students who do not, and perhaps cannot, succeed. This is an enormous drain on resources in the system and does not contribute to ensuring “the country has university-educated citizens”.

    To eliminate tuition, by itself, would de-incentivize educational choices related to likelihood of success. It also incentivizes dallying at a university level so that, far from feeding university graduates into society at large, more students will decide that the campus is a comfortable oasis for more and more years of their adult, otherwise productive, lives.

    Some argue that a wider net and lower cost is needed because students who are economically or socially disadvantaged are being excluded on a financial basis. My argument is that simply widening the net is unlikely to solve this problem unless we massively increase university resources to make it better suited as a holding tank for a whole generation of unmotivated adult children. The needs of disadvantaged-with-potential students will not be addressed, and we will simply have highly-trained academics teaching more and more unmotivated crowds of generic “students” with no particular goals or interests. We will, in effect, become mega-High-Schools. I’m opposed to this kind of social experiment. Yes, some might argue, we’re already about 80% there. Okay, so I’m opposed to going 100% there.

    Your solution — providing targeted needs-based funds toward disadvantaged groups is a big improvement over this idea, but it shares the same fundamental flaw. While it does address the STATED problem more effectively, it does not address the ACTUAL problem at all.

    The actual problem is not that some segments of society don’t have equal access to higher education — it is that we are drowning in a massive influx of unmotivated, untalented and poorly prepared students who have come to regard university as yet another pre-adult rite of passage in life. And I’m talking about the ones who GO to class.

    Further, as the americans have found, needs-based entitlements do long-term harm to the larger social fabric of society because a trap is created when you de-incentivize making social progress by threatening people with lower levels of subsidization as their status improves. When society becomes sufficiently “generous” toward those in need, there is a point where it is no longer to a person’s advantage to improve their own lot in life or become independent. It breeds dependency.

    Why not target the actual problem?

    Here’s what I recommend. Unfortunately there are few with the political will to suggest it who are also in a position to effect change, but I think every academic knows it’s the only sort of thing that has a chance:

    First, forget all the social and economic stuff. We may care deeply about it, but let’s face it: the university is not meant to be a cauldron for social experimentation, though it often ends up being one — when it does, this often weakens progress toward our actual educational mandate. In any case, I argue that all such considerations are irrelevant or possibly counterproductive toward fulfilling our mandate.

    Institute a government (or other) funded 100% scholarship program. Students (or their families) pay their own tuition. Or perhaps they get assistance from outside interests which, unlike the university, have social or economic issues as their central mandate and act benevolently toward the disadvangates. Keep it expensive. Not prohibitively, but value it appropriately. Government loans and benevolent groups can help disadvantaged make their way into higher ed.

    But offer 100% tuition remission, at the end of each year, for students who achieve a 4.0 GPA that year. Prorate this for lower GPAs down to zero for a 1.0 GPA. Cut the program after 4 years of post-secondary. Or perhaps 5. Or taper it for students taking longer or multiple degrees as long as they have maintained a strong average.

    Let a student wanting to get a university education make the calculation for him/herself: Is it worth my, or my parents’ hard-earned cash to attend school or is it just going to be a really expensive year-long pub crawl with my friends? Have I counted the personal cost toward achieving well enough to receive my (my parents’) money back? Those in need will make a similar calculation, only with regard to taking out student loans. Or benevolent societies giving them a leg up will make the calculation if they believe in stewardship of donors’ money.

    The principal problem with my proposal is the pressure it will create for grade inflation. This must be de-incentivized or counterbalanced. It is a serious problem and I believe it is fixable, it’s already a problem many are thinking about and it can be dealt with separately from the funding issue. My comment is competing now with your piece for length so I’ll leave off there.

    Dr. R. Craigen
    University of Manitoba

  2. Reuben Kaufman / September 26, 2012 at 23:12

    Some interesting ideas, Dr. Craigen ….

    Leo, do you have some comment on this?


  3. Leo Charbonneau / September 27, 2012 at 09:12

    To Reuben Kaufman and Dr. Craigen,

    I try generally to give commenters the last word, so to speak, on my blog and so I don’t usually respond directly to comments. But you have invited me to do so, so I am pleased to respond.

    First, while I concede there may be an impression out there that “we are admitting a good number of students who do not, and perhaps cannot, succeed,” I would like to see the empirical data supporting that. Regardless, data do clearly show – and simple observation confirms it – that demand for university is rather inelastic. The percentage of young people attending university continues to climb even as tuition fees increase well above the rate of inflation. So I’m not sure that regulating tuition is the best way to manage demand – which seems to be the goal that Dr. Craigen is after. If that is indeed his goal, why not just accept fewer students?

    Second, I might challenge his assertion that “university is not meant to be a cauldron for social experimentation.” Why not?

    As for Dr. Craigen’s proposed scholarship and remission scheme, it certainly is inventive, but I’d like to leave it to other readers to argue why it is or isn’t a good idea.

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